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What is Krampus: Origin and Art

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Have you ever wondered what happens to those that wind up on Santa’s naughty list? A lump of coal in the stocking, or maybe socks instead of toys? Which doesn’t sound so bad if they’re comfy socks with little pizzas printed on them. However, dating back centuries to Pre-Christian Alpine traditions, there was a character that dealt with those unfortunate enough to make the naughty list. A tall, horned, anthropomorphic creature with fangs, mismatched feed, and a long whip-like tongue called Krampus. This half-demon, half-goat figure was known as a companion to Saint Nicholas in various European regions such as Austria, Bavaria, and Croatia. While Saint Nick was there to hand out sweets to good children, Krampus was there to dish out punishment for the naughty ones. Whether macabre or merry, this is one myth that has inspired generations, as well as Redbubble artists.

The name Krampus originates from the German work krampen, which means “claw”. He’s often seen carrying a pitchfork or a bundle of birch branches, which are not only used to swat naughty children, but may also have a connection to witch related initiation rites. The chains that are often seen being carried—or wrapped around Krampus—are often thought to symbolize the binding of the devil, but they are also good for an eerie and dramatic effect. Many older depictions of Krampus, especially when it comes to Krampuskarten (greeting cards traded since the 1800’s), are often shown with a sack or basket that is used to haul children away.

It’s said that Krampus is the son of Hel—the Norse god of the underworld—which contributes to the idea that Saint Nicholas has a dark counterpart. Not only does this help to create balance, but looks totally awesome as well. We’re sure even Santa has a shirt or two with one of these wicked designs.

Depending on the location, there are variations in the folklore. For example, in Styria, Krampus is accompanied by antlered, beastly figures known as Schabmänner or Rauhen.(1) The birch bundle is also painted gold and displayed in the home year round, a great way to keep those kids reminded of who might be coming for them if they stray from the path of good.

“The Krampus is the yin to St. Nick’s yang” – Jeremy Seghers

While December 6th is celebrated as The Feast of Saint Nicholas, Krampus Night or Krampusnacht, takes place the night before. Whether alone or accompanying Saint Nick, Krampus takes to the streets to do what he does best. Festivals such as the Lienz’ annual Krampus Parade, feature young men dressed up in costumes resembling the spooky chap, making their way through town to give kids a jolly good scare. One look at these ominous figures is not only awe-inspiring, but sure to make even the hardiest person give a nervous chuckle. 

The festivals have become so popular, that they not only last for days sometimes, but are also making their way into other countries. Although, we can’t imagine anyone wanting to wear one of these heavy furred costumes in something like Arizona. But hey, those naughty kids aren’t going to scare themselves.

Along with this rise in popularity, Krampus has inspired various comic books, posters, novels, tv shows, movies, and of course art. While some artists opt for the macabre version, others aim to make the Krampus a bit cuter and easy going. The kind of character that would appreciate those pizza socks we mentioned earlier. Funky socks or not, make sure you keep your eyes peeled this Krampus Night. Especially if you’ve made your way onto this creepy companions list.

Check out more exciting Krampus inspired designs.

(Header Image: Krampus by thomassciacca)

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Josh

Josh

Teacher, art historian, burrito enthusiast, and Community Manager here at Redbubble.

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